What to Expect When You Get the Unexpected

A mother’s notes on childhood mental illness

The Parent Trap

Blockbusters and bestsellers that just might break your heart.

It’s no coincidence that this post’s title gestures (ironically) to the name of a classic 1960s movie. Or that the name of this blog, as a whole, is derived from those Primers of Pregnancy and Parenting that you, Reader, if you are an American parent of a certain age, have most likely skimmed, if not read cover-to-cover

We Americans do not like the unexplained or unexpected. In all fairness, who would?

That might be why I loved The Parent Trap when I was a kid.

Poster from the original Parent Trap, 1961
parent trap jpg attrib: "Parent trap (1961)" by Reynold Brown - http://www.soundtrackcollector.com/catalog/soundtrackdetail.php?

And why, when my first kid came around, I loved THIS, too.

The Parent Trap was feel-good entertainment, and in the end it gave us what we all wanted and anticipated: the happy (re)marriage.

The What to Expect series prepared me pretty well for my first pregnancy and parenting gig--both of which landed well within the margin of error for “normal.”

To be gratified and to be prepared are wonderful things. That’s why millions of people (mostly female, I’d guess) have enjoyed The Parent Trap and the What to Expect books. A subset of those millions have obsessed over them. And a subset of that subset have bawled their way through them, beginning to end.

If gratification and preparedness are wonderful things, broken promises and foiled expectations stink.

In light of that truism, enjoying The Parent Trap makes sense--especially if you can reasonably expect your own family life to follow its normative pattern, or can lose yourself in it long enough to forget that your family life doesn’t.

Obsessing over the movie makes sense, too--or did, if you were a little girl in the 1960s, when it was all the rage. (In our house it was, anyway.) I mean, “Starring Hayley Mills and Hayley Mills”? WHAT?? How did they DO that? Also, long-lost identical twin sisters Susan and Sharon were enviably cool. Plus, their dad was Brian Keith, who turned out to be pretty dreamy--and their mom was Maureen O’Hara. Plus again, who had ever heard the name Hayley, in the middle of the 20th century? And who wouldn’t want it for her own?

I rest my case.

There was another pull to that movie, though. Like most of our cultural narratives of the mid-20th century, it slogged through the messiness of “abnormality” (in this case -- gasp! -- a broken family), and recovered a “normal” state of affairs at the end. Meaning: the estranged parents, thrust back together by their scheming children and what really was, now that I think back on it, a hot magnetism, rekindle their love and re-knit their family unit.

Yes!! 

Readers, I know you’re wondering what on earth Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara and Hayley Mills squared have to do with the What to Expect Franchise. My answer to you is: more than you would think. The What to Expect books are the grandchildren of the deluded couple who thought their marriage had gone down the tubes, only to be schooled by their precocious kids that MARRIAGES DON’T DO THAT.

Not if they are normal marriages.

Now, let’s be fair about this. The What to Expect franchise (WTE) does not completely ignore the unexpected, the ugly, the untimely, and the sad. It just sort of quietly pushes them off to the side. Because what pregnant woman or new parent wants to lose sleep over everything that could go wrong? And really, why worry about the possible, when you could bask in the comfort of the probable?

I get that--probably more than you think. I’m just not convinced it’s a good way to go about business. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best, is my motto! My other motto is: don’t assume someone you don’t understand is lesser than you.

Of course, not everyone is with me on those points. And, of course, WTE is deservedly popular, and really useful for newbie parents and veterans of the delivery room alike.

But here’s what I dislike: the WTE series does a similar kind of cultural work as The Parent Trap. It is a normative force in our world. In fact, WTE is even more efficient than its grandparent at marginalizing the messy and promoting the regular and the acceptable (as if “regular” is actually attainable. I say it’s not. Some will loudly disagree). While The Parent Trap operates on the principle that crisis and discord are more interesting than harmony, and allows the former to occupy center stage for a good while before banishing them to the cellar, the WTE books gloss over the dysfunctional, the fretful, and the sad, in pregnancy and in young families’ lives. This is a baffling but not unexpected tactic. More families encounter messiness in one form or another than don’t, but most of us like to pretend otherwise.

That’s not to say you won’t read about fairly standard risks, complications, and hazards there. If you suffer from pre-eclampsia or placenta previa or gestational diabetes or preterm labor, you’ll find yourself and your troubles represented in the book. You’ll find solace and useful information there--and that is a wonderful thing and a generous public service.

If you are forced to undergo hours of painful labor for the purpose of meeting briefly and mourning for a long time your dead, full-term baby? You will read about that too, but your misery occupies a small blip on the continuum of experience represented therein--either because it is a relatively rare one, or because happy endings sell more books.

I’m sure a quick consult with my old frenemy Google would resolve the question. I’m just not sure I’m ready to be back in touch quite yet.

Anyway, here’s the issue at its core: what if your kid misses all those milestones set forth in What to Expect the First, Second, and Third years? You probably won’t find much solace or guidance in those pages. They’ll either drive you to the liquor store (bad choice, don’t do it) or to bed (ditto) or to the “niche books.” The books for parents whose kids do not fall within the margin of error for what WTE and a whole lot of others deem normal.

In the niche books you will likely find your bipolar/autistic/explosive/ADHD child. If they briefly drive you to scotch or to bed, they will get you going on a productive path eventually. The niche books can be life-savers to people like me. As I write this post I’m wondering if it’s a betrayal or a blessing that obstetricians don’t hand them out after you pee on the stick and receive the big hug. The least they could do is slip a bibliography in your paperwork, just in case. (In the spirit of full-disclosure, I have not been to an obstetrics practice since the year 2000, so things might be different now.)

And that, in a very large and labyrinthine nutshell, is why WTE broke my heart--and why it might break yours. It suggests there is a quantifiable “normal,” with a recognized margin of error, that can be reckoned in the currency of milestones and benchmarks. It also feeds on parental fear.

But listen up: looks deceive. “Normal” pregnancies take sudden, unmapped turns, and ugly babies grow up to break hearts. The kid you thought was going to be a 6’5” quarterback could turn out to be a 6’5” poet. Or 5’4” truck driver. Or one of a pair of adorable daddies to triplet baby girls. All in spite of those milestones and benchmarks a book informed us were pointing in the “right” direction.

The daddies and the triplets and the truck driver and the poet are very, very right. So are we all, “normal” or not--as long as we are relatively well-behaved.

I think it all comes down to that. Figuring it out has been my greatest achievement so far. My next goal is to figure out how to fold fitted sheets. If any one out there knows of a good, normative guide on how that’s done, will you send me a link?

Deborah Vlock is a Boston-based writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. She spent many dark years fighting, with and for her young son, against the pull of suicidality.

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